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Research: Consumer confusion around ultra-processed foods is widespread

A new pan-European study looking into consumer perceptions of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) has found “widespread confusion” on the topic, despite increasing concerns around their impact on health. The research was published by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Food Consumer Observatory. It surveyed 10,000 consumers from 17 European countries. UPFs can include a broad range of foods such as crisps and chocolate bars, cereals, energy drinks and sodas, ready meals and ready-made sauces and dips, processed meat products like sausages and ham, and plant-based meat and dairy alternatives. The NOVA classification system categorises UPFs as foods that have undergone heavy industrial processing and typically contain ingredients such as protein isolates, seed oils, emulsifiers, gums and additives. According to the report, the majority (65%) of European consumers believe that UPFs are unhealthy and will lead to health issues later in life. For example, 67% said they believe UPFs contribute to long-term health issues like diabetes. 67% of consumers surveyed said they did not like their foods to contain ingredients they do not recognise, while 40% do not trust that authorities are regulating UPFs enough to ensure they are safe and healthy in the long term. In addition to health concerns, 60% of those surveyed consider UPFs to be bad for the environment, linked to the perception of presence of chemicals and ‘unnaturalness’. Despite this, only around half (56%) reported that they try to avoid buying processed foods. Confusion around processing levels – and how foods are processed – was shown to be contributing to uncertainty around which foods to choose. For example, while 61% identified energy beverages as ultra-processed, just 34% and 22% respectively correctly identified vegan cheese and chocolate bars as UPFs. With this in mind, the report points out that consumers are likely to be underestimating how often they eat UPFs, with 84% reporting that they consume UPFs less than five times a week. The research also indicated that such concerns are deterring consumers from choosing plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products. Plant-based alternatives are seen as UPFs by around a third of European consumers surveyed. The research also found that they were more likely to be seen as ultra-processed than their animal-derived counterparts. More than half (54%) said they avoid plant-based substitutes because they want to avoid UPFs, particularly among meat and dairy eaters – but without any indication that they are choosing minimally processed plant-based options instead. Vegan and vegetarian consumers were found to be less likely to avoid meat and dairy alternative products for this reason. Primary motivations for eating UPFs were found to be convenience, price and taste. UPFs often require less or no preparation and price is seen as often lower than whole or minimally processed foods. Consumers said they also prefer the taste of UPFs over home-made food, viewing them as a “treat”. While most consumers said they didn’t see themselves reducing the amount of UPFs in their diet, they hope to “keep them in balance” with less processed and homemade foods. Consumers with less time and money will be the most restricted and least empowered in choosing which foods to purchase, and therefore will be less likely to take processing level into account when choosing foods, the report highlights. EIT Food makes several recommendations to food sector authorities, manufacturers and retailers in its report, aiming to foster consumer trust and support healthy, informed decisions. These include recommendations that health institutions and scientists define UPFs and make “more conclusive and sustained” statements about their short- and long-term health effects. Health institutions should consider how to educate consumers on what food processing means and what it looks like, the report recommends. It also calls for clarification on whether plant-based substitutes are UPFs and whether this impacts their overall health credentials. Klaus Grunert, professor at Denmark’s Aarhus University, and director of the EIT Food Consumer Observatory, said that clearer labelling, guidance and education could help consumers to better engage with the issue – but that concerns over processed food should also be considered in “the wider context of people’s diets and wellbeing”. He added: “It’s also crucial that we continue to bolster our understanding and agreement of how we classify, evaluate and label foods, so that our advice to consumers is informed by the latest science”.

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